3 January 2019
This book is on the reading list of a biblical counselling course that I am taking or I would not have picked up this book to read otherwise. Having read it, it has confirmed my instinct. Mulling over it, I have a lot of respect for Yalom for presenting so cogently the plights of human existence and make it blatantly plain where our search will lead us if it does not lead us to Christ. As a matter of fact, I thank Yalom for his candour in presenting an authentic portrayal of secular therapy that there offers much food for thought, but it does not change the hopelessness of existentialism.
From the outset, Yalom highlights the reality of life that he sees: “it is difficult to deny the inbuilt despair in the life of every self-conscious individual." He quotes Schopenhauer: “Can we foresee it, there are times when children might seem like condemned prisoners, condemned, not to death, but to life, and as yet all unconscious of what their sentence means.” (p.7) Fate is also likened to be a butcher who picks out his prey from the flock to present what have been in store for us – “sickness, poverty, mutilation, loss of sight or reason.” (p.7) In the introduction, Yalom states that “My therapy goals with these patients are ambitious: in addition to symptom removal and alleviation of pain, I strive to facilitate personal growth and basic character change.” (p. xxi) Growth by definition implies a direction and I wonder with this gloomy outlook of life, where is Yalom taking his patients in personal growth and character change.
Yalom lists four ultimate existential concerns: death, isolation, meaninglessness and freedom (p.140). On the meaning of life, he observes that “We humans appear to be meaning-seeking creatures [which I agree] who have had the misfortune of being thrown into a world devoid of intrinsic meaning [here Yalom has assumed a worldview but stated it as a matter of fact]. One of our major tasks is to invent a meaning sturdy enough to support a life and to perform the tricky manoeuvre of denying our personal authorship of this meaning.” (p. 136) Yalom’s worldview is a world without intrinsic meaning, therefore, meaning has to be “invented”, but dressed up as not. Why does he stress the concealment of human authorship in the meaning that he provides to his patients? It suggests that patients are looking for intrinsic meaning that he cannot provide. But how can anyone with integrity stay in a profession to address people’s disillusionment by deception / illusion? How can despair save the despaired? Schopenhauer is right in observing that “willing itself is never fulfilled – as soon as one wish is satisfied, another appears.” (p.138) The world can never offer us anything that will fully and everlastingly satisfy us, because we are made to crave for not the things of the world. Yalom concludes from his experience of practice that “meaning in life is best approached obliquely….The question of meaning in life is, as the Buddha taught, not edifying. One must immerse oneself into the river of life and let the question drift away.” (p.139) Asking about the meaning of life is fundamental to our existence. Will patients feel cheated if they know that they pay so much for therapy with this ultimate answer waiting for them?
Similarly freedom in Yalom’s worldview is psychologically complex and permeated with anxiety, rather than contains straightforward positive connotations as it seems. It is Yalom’s belief that we are the authors of ourselves, we design ourselves and we play the central role in constituting that world. Such a world is not a well-structured one. As we look down, what is beneath us? The answer: nothingness. (p. 141) Such a view creates a huge burden on us for ultimately we are responsible for ourselves. When we perceive responsibility more than what we can handle, this will breed anxiety or resistance to responsibility. But this is warped freedom when we choose to rebel against God.
“Death is a visitor in every course of therapy.” (p. 127) Death and mortality form the horizon for all discussions about ageing, bodily changes, life stages, and many significant life makes…” (p. 131) “The fear of death always percolates beneath the surface.” (p. 127) What is the answer? “From the beginning of written thought humans have realised that everything fades, that we fear the fading, and that we must find a way to live despite the fear and the fading. Psychotherapists cannot afford to ignore the many great thinkers who have concluded that learning to live well is to learn to die well.” (p. 128) “Though the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death may save.” (p.129) In other words, death gives meaning to life. From this description, I learn that we cannot avoid the topic of death but to this day, death is still a taboo subject. It seems to me that the best therapy can offer is to temper death terror (p.288). Yet for Christians we talk about death is conquered. Isn’t this a far better answer we are able to offer not just to patients but to all people?
This book helps me distrust what therapy can offer. It gives away the trade secret that it holds no answers to the fundamental questions about life. The ultimate answer to the meaning of life is meaninglessness, and we rely on death, which we fear and cannot be conquered but to be tempered, to save us. Our existence ultimately is an unfolding tragedy with the inbuilt despair in the life that we cannot deny. This is a dark discipline which offers despair to treat despair – there is much cynicism in this and the framework is built on a shaky ground. It surprises me why people won’t rebel against such circular thought and turn to Christ, the good news and the wisdom from above. He is the Greatest Physician, who came to bind up the broken-hearted , to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound (Isaiah 61:1). Furthermore, in Christ, the relationship between counsellor and counselee will be different. Yalom stresses the therapist-patient relationship as a tool in the treatment. To me, the intimacy that it portrays is dangerous for both the therapist and the patient. Although it may be effective in a secular framework, I would like to say Christ offers an alternative in how we could handle this relationship that protects both parties, far more powerful to treat patients, and far more wholesome. Christ offers hope that secular therapist cannot.